If you were to list the most relentlessly optimistic and resilient characters in television history, The Middle’s Sue Heck might be close to standing on her own podium at this point. Throughout the ABC sitcom’s nine-season run — which will come to its conclusion next year — Eden Sher’s portrayal of the part-zany, part-naïve middle Heck child has been the clear highlight of the series, with her constant I can do this, gosh darn it! attitude in the face of day-to-day adversity. If Sue can do it, so can we! If Sue can survive wearing ugly protective headgear for half a decade while working at a sad potato restaurant called Spudsy Malone’s, so can we! In the midst of The Middle’s farewell season, Vulture called up Sher to discuss Sue’s evolution, why the show never got political, and her dream of seeing Sue and Leslie Knope meet.
I’m really bummed that The Middle is ending. And my mom is too. We’ve loved watching it together over all these years.
It’s crazy to hear things that like. I was just talking with this woman and her two daughters when they came to visit our set, and it reminded me on a personal level how much I’ve grown up on this show. I started when I was 17, and now I’m 25 and a grown-ass women. I’ve had my formative years at this place. When I started the show, I had no dogs. Now I have two dogs. So I met these two girls who were in high school, and they had been watching the show since they were 9. That’s a crazy thing, to potentially have an impact on other people’s formative years. It’s cool!
What continues to surprise you about Sue, now that the show is in its final stages?
How much of myself has been infused into it.
The discrepancy in age … I’ve always been four or five years older than this character. But since she started college, she sort of caught up to me. Twenty-one feels way less of an age gap than 13 to 17. I’ll do a scene or I’ll have this speech that means so much to me, and it’ll feel so personal. I’ve gotten better at acting. [Laughs.] I’ve seen the pilot again recently and I’m like, “Oh my god, I was so bad! I could’ve played that so much better!” It’s a good thing that I’ve learned so much and improved, but it continues year after year to become more personal. I used to eschew the whole “Sue is different than me” attitude, but now it’s like, I don’t know. She’s actually not that naïve. It’s this weird blurred line where Sue ends and Eden begins.
I’ve been astounded by Sue’s never-ending positivity. Why do you think she’s never reached a breaking point? What keeps her sane?
I have two answers. One, I have no idea. I have no idea why a person would be an unbreakable as that. I say that as someone who is extremely fragile and has panic attacks and rage issues. [Laughs.] But I’ll also counter that with this: I don’t think that’s necessary true. It goes back with what you said earlier, you watching the show with your mom every week. It’s kind of like brain candy in a way. Hopefully, a well-rounded person comes across with Sue. I like to think that Sue has had her share of breakdowns and the audience just gets to see the result of that. I have my share of temper tantrums, but if you go to a party you don’t see it, of course. What you see is the result of Sue coming out from another side.
About a season ago, I feel there was a noticeable change with Sue: She’s thriving in college, has a great roommate, and has a requited love with Sean. Do you feel there was a defining moment when her life started to pick up for the better? Like getting out of Orson?
I don’t think it can be narrowed down to one moment, but it’s been a gradual culmination of her work she’s put in. Especially to being positive. I’ve been pleasantly surprised and happy about the way the writers have made her. It would be so silly if it was the same joke over and over again. Rejected from the club, rejected from the team, but happy anyway! It would get so boring. A few seasons ago, there was a passing comment and she says, “High school is hard, but college is where you get to really hit your stride!” It’s true.
I’m remaining true to the character despite not having the gag of being rejected all of the time. I don’t think it harms Sue’s character to have good things happen to her. Sue and I definitely have that in common — I’ll have anxieties and self-loathing, but I’ve consciously maintained that everything will still be okay. I trust myself that all will be great. If you focus on the good, more good will present itself.
Are worried for Sue’s future, knowing she’s lived a very sheltered life and maintained a rose-tinted view of the world?
I’m totally worried. There have been moments where the suspension of disbelief of what Sue actually knows is a little questionable. When she was a senior in high school, she didn’t know what French kissing was. She was like, “I thought French kissing was when you kissed on a rainbow!” I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me, how do you not know that?” [Laughs.] Those moments are few and far between, though. Definitely she’s a very sheltered person, but what comes along with being really positive and trusting means is that you trust the world and you’re not closed off. If you’re open to positivity, you’re open to change. There’s been a lot of teachable moments in Sue’s life that she’s experienced. If you have one paradigm shift, others will follow.
The Middle might be ABC’s only comedy that has eschewed discussing real-world politics. Was there a conscious decision among the writers and actors to avoid it?
I think maybe. I’m not sure. It’s definitely not the actors’ choice — we don’t have any say into what we do. Unless it’s something really egregious, but that’s never happened to that extent. I would then go to the writers and say, “I’m not doing this.” Which, luckily, I’ve never had to do. I’m not in the writers room, but I think there’s an element of … if you make something too timely, then it dates itself.
I’ll be honest, this is something that I have to tell myself in order to be okay with not making any statement on the world around us on the show: It exists in its own world and you can’t look at it as a reflection on the actual issues that are happening. Different shows do different things. I feel it was a conscious effort on the writers’ part to go away from anything political. For me in my personal life, I like to do things that make a statement and relate to the real world, but I have to accept that The Middle is a different beast.
Do you think the show would’ve benefited from a story line about the presidential election, or just the current political climate in general? The Middle is in the unique situation of being set in a red state — I feel there would’ve been something compelling about the family’s political ideals.
Yeah, yeah. [Laughs.] If it were my show that I was running … it’s funny, I had that exact same thought. We’re in a unique position of being this one show that really appeals to everyone regardless of your political beliefs. I think it would’ve been good, at least in a subtle way, to hint at some kind of political change. A way to make some kind of statement of, “We don’t think this. We don’t think that.” A simple way to get through to people. There’s an episode coming out that does make a statement with Brad [the show’s openly gay character] that I think is really important and I’m happy we’re doing it. I wish there would’ve been something to think about politics. But I don’t even know how it would’ve been done. There was this great article written by Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker and it ended on this ambiguous note if the Hecks would’ve voted for Trump.
Do you think they would’ve voted for Trump?
I rarely take to the internet, because the internet stresses me out and I’m really bad at it, but someone showed me that article I was like, “No, no, no!” I can guarantee you, I’m saying out loud, Sue and the Hecks would not have voted for Trump, no question. I want to be clear, this is not a statement on … the writers have done a really good job. It didn’t negatively affect us in any way, I just think there was a really missed opportunity about politics. All it could’ve done was make something a little more positive. I’ll say that if it were my show, I would’ve hinted towards some political opinion. Or at least start a discussion.
There’s a dearth of working-class sitcoms these days. How do you think The Middle has contributed to that blue-collar TV legacy?
I think it’s great. It’s rare and it’s really important. Our co-creators worked on Roseanne for awhile, so they’re really well-versed in all of those topics. The Middle has a Roseanne vibe because of it, of course. It’s progressive in its own way — we’re a pretty feminist show. The relationship between Mike and Frankie doesn’t succumb to any annoying tropes that have existed in sitcom-land for a long time with married couples. It does feel special and important that you’re able to have just as much comedy in a “life sucks” type of environment, because it’s something that a lot of people in our country are feeling.
How much input do you have with Sue’s evolving style? Did you reach a point where you were like, “I refuse to wear fake braces anymore. No way.”
I didn’t have any breakdown moment with the braces. There was a collective thought from everybody that we needed to move things along with Sue’s look. It wasn’t a vanity thing where I was like, “I can’t do this anymore.” Braces were a fun thing, but in real life, nobody has braces for that long. Have you known anyone who’s had braces for longer than six years? Everyone felt that at the same time — the writers, me, the cast.
For the hair, I had been asking to cut my hair for a few years. I totally understand that for the sitcom, you have to set the reset button with any big change. It’s the nature of the industry, and Sue had the same look for a while. But for me in real life, I was like, “I need some kind of change here.” I totally understood the writers with not letting me cut my hair, but after awhile they said okay. I think it worked really well. It was good timing to chop off the hair. And it was a good time for me, too!
How would you like to see Sue’s upcoming years unfold? Do you see her always staying in Indiana?
I’m slowly coming to the realization that we’re coming to the end. I want to be on the same page as the writers about Sue’s ending, and we definitely are. My shower and pooping thoughts are that I know for a fact that she wouldn’t stay in Indiana. Maybe she’d come back, but I don’t think so. She’d move to a metropolitan area — not New York City, but Madison or something similar. She’d get a cool, fun job. She’s in hotel management, so I see her running a little bed and breakfast. A bed and breakfast for preschoolers! [Laughs.]
I’ve always wondered what it would be like if Sue met Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation. It seems like a natural pairing of infectious Indiana personalities.
You know what’s crazy? I’m a huge Parks and Rec fan, and a few years ago I thought about exactly that. I had a dream, I’ve never forgotten it — it was Sue, but also me, and Amy Poehler, but also Leslie Knope. We met and did a crossover episode. It was Sue taking a tour of the Pawnee government building. It was just perfect. Every time I watch an episode of Parks and Rec, I still think about it. It’s my literal dream for Sue and Leslie Knope to come face-to-face.
You’re leaving the comfort of network television for the first time in decade. What do you want to do next?
The answer I’m supposed to give is something along the lines of, “I want to get into movies and take a break and do some serious roles.” But in my gut, I want to do another series. I would love to play a role that’s not Sue and I would love to play a role that isn’t a teenager. You nailed it with the phrasing of “the comfort of network TV.” It doesn’t have to be a network show for me, though. It could be edgier! I could be more creatively involved! Maybe I could write! I’m working on stuff on my own, too. I would love to do another comedy. I love television. I feel there’s a hierarchy of the prestige of different mediums within Hollywood, and I know sitcoms aren’t high on the totem pole, but I fucking love them. I’d love to do another.
We’ll get you back on a big three network for next fall, don’t worry.
Please make it happen.
This interview has been edited and condensed.